What's Stephon Marbury doing in China? It's gotta be the shoes
Marbury joined Shanxi Zhongyu of the Chinese Basketball Association last month
He is trying to lead one of the CBA's worst teams on a late-season playoff run
He is also aiming to give his low-cost sneaker line, Starbury, a jump-start in China
Last week, hiking through the ancient forts of the Great Wall was an unlikely figure: Stephon Marbury, the latest, and perhaps the most enigmatic, NBA refugee to bring his game to China.
"Truly amazing," Marbury said, as he gazed west, the silhouetted battlements running along the skyline, the cold air reminiscent of New York, where he was born and where he spent five tumultuous seasons with the Knicks before a contentious divorce last spring. Three hundred miles away is Marbury's new home, Taiyuan, an industrial city in north central China and the capital of Shanxi province. "This is something I've been looking forward to for a long time."
Marbury's tour guide told him what Chairman Mao once said: "You are not a real man until you set foot on the Great Wall." But it was not Mao's credo that brought Marbury to China. Believe it or not, he has a plan: first, to take his new team, Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, one of the worst in the Chinese Basketball Association, to the playoffs; second, to give his low-cost sneaker and apparel line, Starbury, a jump-start in the world's largest market.
To accomplish the first one, he needs a small miracle. Shanxi Zhongyu, 6-16 before the current Chinese New Year break and 2-3 with Marbury, ranks 14th in the 17-team CBA. With 10 games to play, the Brave Dragons are four wins out of the final playoff spot. The second one, well, pretty much depends on the first.
* * *
Twelve hours after landing in Taiyuan last month, Marbury was sending messages via the Chinese version of Twitter: What's up China? How are you guys doing? I'm so excited to be here. This is going to be a great experience.
This is déjà vu for Shanxi supporters. Last season they saw the arrival of NBA star Bonzi Wells and heard similar words. Wells averaged 34.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.8 steals over 14 games and then left without so much as a goodbye.
"I'm not Bonzi," Marbury said. But why did the two-time NBA All-Star guard, who earned more than $20 million just a year ago, decide to come to China? The CBA is arguably the most competitive league in Asia, but Shanxi can pay Marbury no more than a relative pittance. Each CBA team is allowed to recruit only two non-Asian players, with a combined monthly salary not exceeding $60,000.
"I wanted something new," Marbury said. "I wanted to play basketball for the Chinese fans. It'll be part of my history. I am also very happy to bring my brand [Starbury] to the kids here who wanted to play basketball but couldn't afford the expensive shoes."
It was his business interests -- to "keep building my empire" -- that Marbury cited last summer after turning down the Boston Celtics' veteran minimum offer of $1.3 million for this season. The former Dream Teamer, who turns 33 on Saturday, launched Starbury in a joint venture with retail clothing chain Steve & Barry's in 2006, aiming to provide sneakers and sportswear for less than $30. Since the retail chain went bankrupt two years ago, he had been looking for opportunities to revive his brand.
Now Marbury has a new partner. "We will be helping him promote his brand and generate business opportunities [in China]," said Zhang Beihai, general manager of Shanxi. On Jan. 31, two hours before stepping on the court for the first time in nine months, Marbury Tweeted the link to his Chinese online store.
"We never thought he'd come and join us, until the business [opportunities] came up," Brave Dragons owner Wang Xingjiang said. "He agreed to give a shot at CBA only after having looked into the market potential in China."